Panic in the Music Industry

Perhaps you’ve noticed how Radiohead has shaken the four major record labels to the core by offering value pricing for digital downloads.

Now Oasis and Jamiroquai – two major acts that don’t have a record label contract – are considering following in Radiohead’s footsteps. A group called the Charlatans is also offering its next album free if fans visit the site of British radio station XFM. (Hint to U.S. broadcasters and labels, listen up).

And more artists could be on the way.

Radiohead is letting consumers determine if and what they want to pay for their new album In Rainbows online.

They expect to make their money from concert ticket sales and merchandise. And, CD sales for those who want to own the hard copy.

Prince gave away his new CD in the Daily Mail tabloid newspaper and sold out his 21 concert dates in the U.K.

It’s too early to tell if this creative marketing move will be successful, but it's one more new idea than we’ve seen from the big four record labels.

HitWise shows the Radiohead site has moved up from #43 to number one for music sites in the U.K.

When all is said and done, the Radiohead experiment may not endure. But it may be significant because it marks a tipping point.

The artists are revolting and taking control of their music from record labels that have been dead on arrival for the last seven years – at least. When a label comes up with a revolutionary idea, they call a lawyer and sue. When a label embraces the Internet it means hiring interns to try to manipulate social networking groups as Columbia has admitted publicly to doing in that New York Times Sunday Magazine piece on co-top exec Rick Rubin.

With CD sales dropping, the artists are taking matters into their own hands – as long as they are not under contract. Madonna negotiated with her label, Warner, and Live Nation before signing a huge ten year contract with Live Nation. The significance is that Madonna was betting she wouldn't need a record label and went with the sure thing -- the touring that Live Nation could bring. This may not be a good deal for Live Nation. They are paying through the nose. But time will tell.

For now, all the pioneering is done by big name artists and groups with fan bases and track records. As I said earlier, the Radiohead experiment may not endure but the idea of embracing rather than fighting the digital future has officially arrived this Fall.

Artists want to insure touring profits. They want to grow merchandise sales. If they go down with the CD, they are out of business.

So, they are trying things.

It probably is not in the DNA of the four major record labels unless they were to form an independent (and I mean hands-off independent) skunk works to do some outrageous things.

If not, the artists are beginning to show that they will.

What’s unsettling about all this is that if the four labels had listened to their arch enemy Steve Jobs and lowered download prices instead of fighting for variable pricing, they would be headed in the direction of future growth.

What we can conclude is disturbing to the labels but exciting to consumers and artists.

The 99-cent legal music download standard is probably over – soon, at least.

The “album” that the major labels romantically refer to as a collaboration of creativity is also over. The next generation cherry picks what it wants. There is little magic left in the concept of a record album.

Today's technology allows artists to produce new music quickly and distribute it upon completion in real time. They can feed their public – one song at a time or in clusters. They now have the power.

In time, lesser known groups will harness the advances that we’re starting to see now.

Then it will be lights out for the major record labels who were actually in the dark themselves during the digital revolution that is gaining attention today.

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